A man holds a firework while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali, the annual festival of lights, in Mumbai on October 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui
A man holds a firework while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali, the annual festival of lights, in Mumbai on October 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

Social media lit up like a fireworks display soon after the Indian Supreme Court on October 9 temporarily banned the sale of firecrackers ahead of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in Delhi-National Capital Region.

The ruling led to ambiguity and confusion. Intriguingly, a few celebrities  opined that bursting firecrackers on the eve of Diwali had been an Indian heritage and tradition for ages. The Twitterati wasted no time in involving other faiths and religious customs as a kernel of tortuous arguments.

As if the tweets weren’t gratifyingly convoluted, netizens effortlessly forwarded messages on messaging platforms that said, “Say no to Chinese crackers, China is an enemy of India.” Amusingly, many of the recipients and senders used Chinese-brand phones to express the “sacred” cause.

Never mind firecrackers; people’s annoyance, fretting and fuming were no less intense than an explosion of an atomic bomb. But in this warlike situation, most of them failed to touch upon the source of fireworks and other factual points.

In the early 7th century, China blazed a trail when some of its alchemists accidentally invented fireworks. It caused much surprise and amusement, as the loud sounds from the fireworks scared the cavemen and evil spirits. Since then firecrackers have been dumbfounding nations regardless of race, religion and age groups for centuries.

Some historians argue that Marco Polo, while returning from China in 1295, carried fireworks with him to India, Italy and Europe. Another school of thought believes that Arabs in the 14th century smuggled fireworks to the Middle East and India along the Silk Road. Philosophers of religion maintain that there was a mention of gunpowder in the ancient Sanskrit scriptures.

Most of the countries of the world use pyrotechnics to mark special occasions,  such as national days, fireworks festivals, village fairs, commemorations of historical events and inaugural ceremonies. However, those countries have proper regulations in place.

Some have classified fireworks, with only a specified category that can be sold to the public. In many nations, only a certified manufacturer can produce them. The sale of fireworks to persons under 18 is strictly prohibited in some Baltic, Nordic and countries in the region of Oceania. There is a partial ban in some nations and the sale of fireworks to the public is restricted to a few days or weeks in a few states.

Fireworks are illegal in most of the member states of the Arab League, Chile, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. South Africa mandates that all public fireworks displays be under the oversight of a pyrotechnist and police explosives expert, and some authorities have rationed the duration of such displays.

The cherry on the top is that hundreds of cities in China itself, including Beijing and Shanghai, have banned the sale and use of fireworks in an effort to get to grips with air pollution. Yet some renegade dealers and perfidious traders in India have favored Chinese-made firecrackers, at the expense of public health, the environment and the exchequer. Most of these Chinese products blatantly violate provisions of the noise standards for firecrackers as notified by the Environment (Protection) Rules of 1986.

Indians’ love for and obsession with fireworks are many centuries old. In the 1980s people used to buy a carton full of firecrackers for a paltry sum. In those days, no license was required, and shops a stone’s throw away from neighborhood grocery stores all stocked and sold them. Regulations were minimal.

However, India has tightened the policies on access to fireworks and prohibited the use of potassium chlorate in them in 1992. It was then that the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization collaborated and integrated with other governing bodies such as the Fireworks Development Research Center, the Department of Explosives Central Pollution Control Board, state pollution control boards, the Fire Development and Research Center, the National Environment Engineering Research Institute, and the Customs and state labour and police departments.

The impacts of fireworks use are not all environmental.  Once the sparkles, glitters and fun are finished,  their aftermath can cause stress to vulnerable  persons such as those with weak lungs or hearts, asthmatics, the elderly, infants, pets and livestock

Imported fireworks have been declared a restricted item under Chapter 36 of the Indian Trade Classification (Harmonized System) by the Director General of Foreign Trade. Therefore, the import, sale, possession and use of Chinese fireworks in India is a punishable offense under various laws.

Chinese firecrackers contain a high dose of potassium chlorate, which is a potent oxidizing agent that accelerates combustion and is also toxic to skin and vital organs. In contrast, Indian products, including those from Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu state, utilize potassium nitrate and powdered aluminum, which is not only expensive but also not efficacious.

The impacts of fireworks use are not all environmental. Once the sparkles, glitters and fun are finished,  their aftermath can cause stress to vulnerable persons such as those  with weak lungs or hearts, asthmatics, the elderly, infants, pets and livestock.

According to The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, there were 9 million pollution-related deaths worldwide in 2015, 25% of them in India. Air pollution had the most significant impact, accounting for 65% of total pollution-related deaths, and India ranked No 5 in this category out of 188 countries. Pollution was linked to a third of deaths in Bangladesh, China and Pakistan. The British Lung Foundation said: “Air pollution is reaching crisis point worldwide.”

To date, no license for the import of fireworks into India has been granted. In spite of that, Chinese firecrackers are making their entry to Indian households.

Clean air is the order of the day, and we must put it at the forefront of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or “Clean India” drive. Vehicular emissions, burning of crop residue or rice-paddy straw and stubble, waste burning and other such factors are deteriorating air quality across the nation.

Air-conditioning is another cause of global warming. Chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants and burning of fossil fuels are significant causes of depletion of the ozone layer. The state pollution control boards ought to evaluate alternatives.

If left unchecked, the growing air-pollution levels will lead to a host of problems. While many factors come into play, it’s important to note that the changing environment affects every living creature and nature. The state pollution control boards must work toward preventive measures and a uniform civil code across the states so that the air pollution in all cities and states can be nipped in the bud.

Besides contributing to India’s air-pollution problem, the fireworks industry, like many other small-scale industries, has allegedly been robbing children of their right to healthy living and playfulness. Child labor has presumedly contributed a fair amount to the 20 billion rupee (US$300 million) fireworks industry. Children have been made to work from their homes, paid on a per-piece basis.

The fireworks factories usually hire workers on a seasonal basis, and half a million people work for a paltry wage and in dangerous conditions in sweatshops. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has come up with an action plan and has achieved positive results so far.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, the government and various bodies ought to speed up reforms related to fireworks, possibly by introducing a uniform civil code as a fundamental right for all Indians.

The Noise Pollution Rules of 2000 defined silent zones such as educational institutions, places of worship, premises of judiciary and governments, hospitals and nursing homes. Sadly, various surveys by non-governmental organizations indicate that the administration has not been effective in keeping noise below the maximum permissible levels. Shouldn’t every city restrict the zones in which firecrackers are permitted?

In spite of frequent inspections by joint teams, manufacturing units are flagrantly violating the Explosives Rules of 2008. Testimony to this is the fact that fire accidents and deaths have become an annual affair. Unauthorized use of potassium chlorate, lack of supervision and training in factories, illegal storage of fireworks at public display locations and non-adherence of prescribed safety measures are the principal causes of these mishaps.

The fireworks industry in India has been lackluster and continues to be in the doldrums, registering negative growth. It’s time to transition to eco-friendly fireworks and other green alternatives.

The authorities must ally with educational institutes to sensitize students about ill effects and health hazards of all kinds of pollution. Children can be the ambassadors of “good over evil”, at the same time as “children are the guardians and custodians of the environment” and “children are the future of the nation.”

It’s not puffery to say that the future of the country could hinge on people’s ability to pay more than just lip service to the environment.

Sunil Dhavala is media entrepreneur. He has held leadership roles at National Geographic Channel, Fox Broadcasting, Radio Television Luxembourg, STAR TV and WPP Group. He is also an author, motivational speaker and panelist.

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